Addicts Need Empathy And Compassion, Not Judgment And Shame

by Mary Katherine
Originally Published: 
oneinchpunch / Getty

My husband is a physician. Every day at work, he sees devastating illness and death. I don’t know how he does it, to be honest. I’ve always been in awe of the folks who work on the front lines of our health care system. I wonder how they can see the most heartbreaking moments of the human condition, every day, and simply return home to their normal lives.

I was pondering all of this yesterday morning when my spouse walked into the kitchen.

“Honey,” I said. “I have a random question.”

“Okay,” he responded, pouring a cup of coffee.

“What’s the saddest thing you have to see at work?”

He paused for a moment, and his eyes seemed to search.

“Addiction,” he said. “Without a doubt. Addicts break my heart the most, every day.”

To be honest, I had expected him to respond with car accidents, or child sickness, or cancer. But… addiction?

“Why?” I asked.

He shrugged a little.

“I see people suffering every day. Of course, all of it is horrible,” he said. “But most of those people don’t have to suffer alone–except addicts. When an addict comes in, they are almost always by themselves. You ask if there’s anyone to call, they tell you there isn’t. And they are so ashamed, too. It’s like they believe that suffering alone is something they deserve. Nobody has empathy for these people. That’s what makes addiction so heartbreaking.”

I didn’t agree with him, at first. In fact, my husband’s empathy for addicts was making me feel a little bit squirmy. Perhaps a little conflicted, too.

You see, addiction runs rampant in my family. This disease has affected us in horrible ways. My therapist warned me to establish firm boundaries with my addicted loved ones, but to be honest, despising them was just easier. I believed they chose a substance over me, and instead of dealing with the hurt that their disease was causing, I decided to toss them aside.

I’m ashamed to admit this, but I think it’s important to do. Because I know it’s not just me. Society as a whole seems to struggle with how to respond to addiction. And the sad truth is, this horrible disease isn’t going away any time soon. The suffering part is bad enough. But for people to suffer, be stigmatized, abandoned, and loathed? That is a special torment that no human being should abide.

It is time we move toward empathy for addicts, and this is why:

Addiction is a disease, not a choice.

Like diabetes, cancer and heart disease, addiction can be caused by multiple factors: behavioral, environmental, or biological. According to the National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse, genetics account for half of the likelihood that an individual will develop a severe dependence. Addiction is very much a disease, and addicts deserve to be treated with compassion.

Judging is ineffective, and also cruel.

I understand that relationships with addicts can be complicated. I’ve been there. I know firm boundaries are crucial.

However, when we judge someone for symptoms of a disease they cannot control, we are downplaying their struggle instead of acknowledging what it truly is. Addiction is a brain illness that changes the way people behave. People can’t fix their brain chemistry any easier than someone could fix their own broken leg. By shaming an addict, as if their addiction is a personal choice, you are placing a moral expectation on a purely physical ailment. That is not only ineffective, it is cruel.

Shaming has negative impacts on already suffering humans.

Have you ever heard the saying “don’t beat a horse while it’s down?” Think about that for a second. When someone is suffering from addiction, shaming them is not likely to help. In fact, according to a study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, fear of stigma is one of the top two barriers deterring addicts from seeking treatment in the first place. Conversely, social support and inclusion were identified as leading contributors to a successful recovery. It turns out, shame is a very poor motivator, and can also deal a deadly blow for someone who is already self-loathing and abusing substances.

Compassion is always the right response.

I think for the longest time, society has avoided compassionate responses to addiction because empathy was viewed as being permissive. However, the truth is quite the opposite. When you show an addict compassion, you are validating their struggle, and letting them know that you see them as the human being they are. Nobody deserves to be defined or stigmatized by their illness.

After all, a person is never the problem. The problem is the problem.

This article was originally published on